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A la pression: France, beer, and a drink ‘that’s not like the others’

Brasserie Georges is a treat. This iconic restaurant in Lyon satisfies all the most urgent Francophile desires: there’s chicken-liver terrine served with a huge, help-yourself ceramic jar of cornichons, red leatherette banquettes, waiters in waistcoats, art deco chandeliers, and a very enticing prix fixe menu. Every fifteen minutes or so, a (recorded?) organ pumps out the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ as a waiter hurries here or there to deliver a cake.

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In one respect, though, this Brasserie is untypical. It is a genuine brasserie: it brews beer, which is more than can be said for any of the big Parisian names. Not just brews it, but makes great play of that fact: the facade features an image of Gambrinus, icon of beer, and two beer barrels, there’s a delightful illuminated sign saying ‘Bieres Georges’ on the mirrored back wall of the dining room, the website claims ‘Fine Food and Beer since 1836’ and, to the right as you walk in, there’s the brewkit itself.

That line from the website, whilst not exactly dishonest, is not 100 percent true either. Brasserie Georges began with beer - it was founded by Georges Hoffherr, from a family of Alsatian brewers - and it brews now. But the production of Bieres Georges was only restored in 2004, having ceased in 1939, when another local brewery, Rinck, took charge. (The beer itself is worth trying, particularly the Pilsner. Served in a stemmed glass with a thick, white head of foam, it is as attractive as its surroundings.)

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Beer is resurgent across France. This fact seems to delight and surprise foreigners, as I discovered when I tweeted the link to a map showing the geographical spread of the country’s 1400 breweries recently. It’s not hard to work out why: the rise of beer seems at odds with France’s reputation as the world’s most famously wine-centric nation. Well, get used to it: France might have more breweries than the world’s most famously beer-centric nation, Germany, in the next year or so. (Figures vary, of course, but it looks like Germany has somewhere not far north of 1500 breweries.)

Like any good middle-class Briton, France is my favourite country. Taking in family holidays, trips to Paris, carefree pre-children inter-railing and more besides, I reckon I’ve spent the best part of a year of my life in the country. When I was 28, I decided to learn French (and 11 years later, I’m getting there). Of late I’ve taken an interest in French beer because this country has a fascinating relationship with the world’s favourite alcoholic drink: sometimes sentimental, but more often standoffish; intrigued, but frequently dismissive.

Much of this has to do with wine. It’s always amusing to hear French politicians talk about wine. Didier Guillaume, French minister of agriculture, recently said that wine “n’est pas un alcool comme les autres“ (‘it’s not alcohol like the others’, by which meant spirits and beer). Even better was President Macron in February last year: “Il y a un fléau de santé publique quand la jeunesse se saoule à vitesse accélérée avec des alcools forts ou de la bière, mais ce n'est pas avec le vin." (“There is a public health risk when young people binge drink on spirits or beer, but it's doesn’t happen with wine”). Less amusing, certainly, if you’re a French brewer: still wine is, proportionally speaking, far less taxed than beer. As Le Monde noted last year, the current French tax system is geared towards protecting wine producers, not public health.

France’s wine tradition is deep and enduring, but its primacy has as much to do with the search for a common French identity as much as anything else. Deep into the 19th and even 20th centuries, France was a patchwork of interlinking cultures, with different languages/dialects, outlooks, traditions and drinks. Brittany, the Basque Country, Catalonia, Alsace and Flanders were very different from one another, and from the regions directly bordering them (and still are, albeit to a much lesser extent).

The Grand Final at Paris Beer Week

The Grand Final at Paris Beer Week

At this time, French was a foreign language in large parts of the country. An 1863 survey found there were huge swathes of southern France, particularly in modern-day Languedoc-Roussillon, where no French was spoken at all. Wine was one of the icons that created a unified idea of France, but it also obscured this remarkable diversity. (Read ‘The Discovery of France’, by Graham Robb, for more on this. It is a superb book).

The fridge at Franprix in  Argelès-sur-Mer

The fridge at Franprix in Argelès-sur-Mer

Two things are happening now: that regional distinctiveness has been gradually returning for a while (it’s worth noting that Brittany, one of France’s most stubbornly idiosyncratic regions, has become a centre of brewing over the last 20 years or so), and the worldwide craft-beer movement has broken in a big way over France. I went to Paris Beer Week last year, and I was struck by the youth and diversity of the crowd: as in Spain and Italy, beer appears to have become a symbol of revolt against the establishment (aka wine). It’s not your grandfather’s drink.

As in Britain, this desire for more flavoursome beer is gradually seeping into the mainstream. Since 2015, I’ve made yearly family-holiday trips to Argelès-sur-Mer, a Mediterranean seaside resort close to the Spanish border that boasts the highest density of campsites in the country. For the first few years, the most interesting beer you could get in the local mini-markets was Hoegaarden, Pilsner Urquell or the occasional pot-luck witbier - but this year Franprix had installed a fridge boasting macro-craft brands Lagunitas, Meantime, and Camden alongside French craft like Parisis and Gallia, amongst others.

Gallia, made in Paris, is a great example of what’s changed. Like Truman’s in London, the name was an old one revived by entrepreneurs, and when they began in 2009 they focused on the type of beer that has long been popular in the French capital: pale lager. But brewer Remy Maurin has recently demonstrated to Gallia’s owners that other types of beer, particularly hoppy beer, are very popular. And not just IPAs, too: at the Grand Final, Paris Beer Week’s central event, their most impressive beer was a Berliner Weisse made with Mirabelle plums.

Paris itself seems to have reached cruising altitude after a few years of stops-and-starts (there are lots of beer-focused bars now, despite all the obstacles: I particularly liked Hoppy Corner and L’Atalante on my most recent trip) and, as the Grand Final showed, there are good modern breweries all over France - such as Galibier in the Alps, Sainte-Cru in Alsace and Azimut, in the heart of wine country, Bordeaux. Thiriez, in the North, was a pioneer and remains a reference point. Bars like Lille’s Le Capsule, meanwhile, are as good as any modern venues in Europe. (Alsace, with Strasbourg at its heart, is both France’s macro-brewing centre and a genuine beer culture.)

Back in Lyon, meanwhile, beer is making its presence felt. Ninkasi, founded in the city in 1997, brews elsewhere now, but it has 17 bars in and around Lyon. Others have followed, and good luck to them, but some parts of this city’s culture remain resistant to malt and hops. The city’s famous bistros are called Bouchons, and they’re temples (of varying quality) to traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, from Quenelle de Brochet to Tablier de Sapeur. It’s all washed down with Beaujolais, not beer; I hope that never changes. In this case, Francophilia outweighs my love for beer.

Will Hawkes